With a headline like this, I don’t know how this article from Greg Stepanich could possibly not have caught my eye. He writes about a new group, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, who he describes as playing music that sounds “kind of like mild gamelan house music, or something like that.” I should caution here that I am probably going to make some people very angry with this post, including some old friends. I know a lot of smart, musical people who love synthesizers, samplers, computer generated music and so on. Pace, but, for me, music comes from instruments and voices, period, and not from machines and toys.
But, says the reader, where do you draw the line between an instrument and a machine? Accepting that a Steinway or a Strad is an instrument, what about crumpled paper, a garbage can lid, or a trombone (kidding)? Well, I would say that, in the context of a musical performance, any of those are musical instruments. Let’s group everything together that makes music and call them “musical soundmakers,” which would include all instruments and voices, body parts (clapping, snapping, stomping) and so on. In my definition, a “musical soundmaker” is a sound producing device that makes a unique, distinct and un-reproduce-able sound that is specific to each human being that plays it. A strad or a garbage can lid will sound different, measurably so, for each person that plays it. Same for a kazoo, an electric guitar or an oboe.
The same is not true for the whole family of electronic instruments from the Moog to the DX7 to the modern midi sequencer. Touch sensitivity, vibrato toggles, breath controllers taken into account, at the end of the day, these machines produce the same sounds no matter who plays them. No matter how passionate the message of the musician, it is the machine’s voice that we hear. I’ve played on these things, played with them and watched some of the best in the business tweak them, but no matter who played the last note on the keyboard, I can step up and get exactly the same sound right away. Worse, I can’t not get (nice English, eh?) exactly the same sound through any combination of trial and error, technique, idiocy or art, unless I change the settings on the box.To me, the whole point of music is communication from human being to human being. I truly believe that music (not advertising soundtracks) is the most direct, honest and powerful communicative tool that human beings have. This process simply ceases to exist when the individual voice of the performer ceases to exist. Replace any musician in an orchestra and you have a different orchestra, even if the new player plays the same instrument, but replace someone in a laptop orchestra and it sounds exactly the same.
Thomas Beecham used to say that the British disliked music, but that they loved the noise it made. Laptop orchestras, samplers, midi, scratching- these are all tools for creating a noise that may sound like music, but they never have, never can and never will produce music. Human beings need music as a means of communication, as a tool of understanding and as an instrument of healing. Bombarding each other with plastic noise as we do on every radio station, in every shop and public place dehumanizes us all. We’re finally waking up to the fact that junk food should just be called junk- food nourishes and heals, junk food does neither. Junk music ought to get the same treatment.